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A Lawyer Speaks Out for the Vulnerable

Renee Battle-Brooks is chief of the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Unit at the Prince George’s County (Maryland) State’s Attorney’s Office. She spoke candidly to Spectrum about the tough cases she deals with every day and how frustrating the job can be. But she sees that believing in people empowers them, and she keeps on fighting.

Question: How long have you been in your job and what led up to it? How did you pick this area of work?

Answer: I have been chief of the unit for six years and in the State’s Attorney’s Office for eight years. Previously I was in the Office of the Public Defender for eight years.

When I first came to the State’s Attorney’s Office, I was in the Narcotics Unit. I was there four months when I was told there was an opening in the Sexual Assault Unit and that my name had come up. I was asked if I would consider the move. I did my tap dance about how I had so much more to learn in the Narcotics Unit and how I was a team player blah, blah, blah. I did not hear anything from management and thought I had dodged a bullet.

I went off on tour to South Africa with the New England Youth Ensemble and lo and behold, while I was away, I was transferred to the Child Abuse/Sexual Assault Unit! So, basically, it picked me. Looking back I see how God was leading.

Q: What are you trying to accomplish in your job, overall?

A: Protection of the citizens – adult and children – of Prince George’s County. Also I am trying to make this journey – for those who have to travel the road – as easy as I can make it by showing kindness (to the moms who for whatever reason place their children in harm’s way), not judging (the prostitutes or university students who drank or used drugs before an assault), believing (the children who thought no one would believe), supporting, and so on.

I am also trying to achieve “justice,” whatever that means. I say that because justice comes in so many different forms. Sometimes justice or victory is in the reporting, not the outcome. There are so many things that cannot be controlled, including the bench, the citizen jurors and even the police themselves. Many days, the “system” is so incredibly discouraging. Our work is not done in a vacuum and politics plays a much bigger role than it should. We like to believe that justice is blind, but honestly, it is not sometimes. The only thing that keeps me going some days is God – the fight can be incredibly hard.

Q: Can you describe a case you prosecuted that you feel was particularly successful? Or maybe particularly interesting for some other reason?

A: I had a case where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Despite that, God made it work.

The case

Victim is in her early 30s. She is asleep in her bed in her home. She has turned on her alarm system. She wakes up to find the defendant crawling around on the floor of her bedroom. It seems that he got into her condo through a very small window that was not alarmed. The defendant was about six-foot-three and over 300 pounds!

The subsequent hours were torture for my victim/survivor. The defendant penetrated every orifice of her body. He tied her up; he put a cover over her eyes. She tried to escape one time but he reached the front door before she could exit. He choked her and punched her in the face. The victim was five feet tall and maybe 100 pounds.

The victim/survivor’s condo looked like a war zone after the assault. When the defendant entered the condo, he already had a cut on his leg. He bled all over her condo, all over her bedding. She had been wearing an ankle bracelet and an arm bracelet. When the assault was over she said that those items were missing, and that he had stolen them.

The defendant then made the victim drive him to a condo in the same large complex – where his mother lived! The defendant was 39 years old. He lived with his mother and was not employed.

The victim reported the assault immediately. She was taken to the hospital and a sexual assault exam was done. DNA was recovered from her vaginal swabs.

Problems: evidentiary

The defendant left his blood all over the place. I asked very specifically that the blood be analyzed to 1) make sure that it was blood, so I could call it blood, and 2) compare it to the defendant’s DNA so that I could say it was his blood. This would help to corroborate the victim’s testimony.

The lead detective was awesome. He made his special request to have the blood analyzed as I requested. But the lab took it upon themselves to not do as requested. They did not even pick the phone up to talk to the lead. As a result, I could never call the stains in the condo blood, and could never link that part of the case.

Also, during the trial my victim answered my question about whether she saw any injury on him by saying “No”! We had spoken about this before and she told me she saw a huge gash on his thigh!

The DNA results came back, and the semen found on the vaginal swab of the victim matched the defendant’s DNA.

Problems: testimony

The victim was unable to provide a strong picture of what happened for the jurors. She downplayed everything. Instead of the repeated punches her face took, the jurors got the impression that it was an open-handed slap, just to give an example.

Then there was the bedding with “blood” on it (which I was not allowed to call blood).

So I had marked the bags containing the bedding and I cut the bags open in front of the jurors. I had on my biohazard gloves and I placed the bedding up on the stand so that the victim could say that “those brown spots” were not on the bedding or in the apartment before the defendant broke into her condo.

As I went to place the bedding back into the evidence bag, guess what fell out? Yep, you guessed it, the bracelet he was accused of stealing!

I referred to the bedding as “the magical blanket” because things kept falling out of it! The problem? That evidence had been sealed the day of the crime and only unsealed by me in front of the jurors. But if the material had been analyzed as I requested, the lab would have found the various items.

God still worked it out. The verdict was guilty. The defendant is doing life plus five years.

Q: Do you have the power to choose which cases to prosecute? If so, what criteria do you use?

A: Yes. We have vertical prosecution in my Unit, meaning the police call us at the inception of the case. We are in during the investigative portion.

The criteria: we have ethical considerations. We should not have anyone arrested if we do not believe we can make the case even if we know that they committed the crime. We also look to see what corroboration we have – another witness, physical evidence, scientific evidence, medical evidence. Each case is different and judged on its merits. There is no “bright line”.

Q: How do you feel you relate to your colleagues?

A: We have a great Unit. We all get along well. This is very important because of the type of work that we must do.

We are constantly talking to each other about our cases, laughing together, crying together, supporting each other. As a result of having to coax the deepest, darkest, ugliest things out of people, we become secondarily victimized. This camaraderie is vital.

Our fellow colleagues in the State’s Attorney’s Office always tell us how thankful they are that they are not prosecuting these types of cases and give us a lot of support too.

Q: How is it different being a prosecutor than a defender?

A: As a prosecutor, the case rises or falls with you and you alone. You have the burden of production, burden of proof, and so on. It is a lot of responsibility and it also carries a lot of emotional heaviness.

As a defender, you are in the best possible seat. You just have to show up, listen, and poke holes in the State’s case.

Q: What do you find most satisfying about your work?

A: Seeing that look in the victim/survivor’s eyes after he or she has told you all the sordid details and you have just told them how proud you are of them for coming forward. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can give a victim is saying that you believe them.

Q: What do you find most frustrating or difficult?

A: Having to tell a victim or victim’s mother that although you believe the victim, you cannot prove the case and therefore the State’s Attorney’s Office will not be prosecuting.

Q: Does your job involve you heavily in an emotional way? Do you find it encroaching on your whole life, even when you are not in the office?

A: Yes. Sometimes it is too much to bear emotionally. I try to leave it at the office. I have a great team and that is very helpful – emotionally as well as professionally.

Q: Do you feel you are making a difference in the world through your job?

A: I don’t know, only time will tell, but every time we tell a child that we believe them, I see how it empowers that child. I still hear from some of my young victims/survivors letting me know how they are doing, and telling me about a graduation, inviting me to a birthday, and so on.

Q: What do you enjoy or find difficult about talking to a jury?

A: Jurors are not always easy to read. You never know if you are getting through to them. Sometimes, they nod affirmatively at you and still do something different. Sometimes when you have some of the more bizarre tales of abuse, you really have to think about how you are going to put it into some sort of order so that they understand exactly what is going on.

Q: How do you feel when you lose a case?

A: Incredibly horrible for the victim and his/her family.

Q: What made you want to be a lawyer? Do you feel you made the right choice?

A: I did a business degree and went to work for Martin Marietta (now Lockhead Martin). But I hated what I was doing.

I’m sorry to say that I had no great scheme or plan. I absolutely believe that this is where God wants me to be at this moment. I don’t know what he has planned for me in the future, but I do believe that the devil is working really hard when it comes to sexual abuse. If you think about it, what better way to distract someone from God, Jesus, salvation and forgiveness if you can keep them focused on the awful devastation that sexual abuse takes? Now imagine if you are a child and the abuser is a father or some other type of authority figure. How do you learn to trust anyone? The Christian model of God the Father and Jesus the Son would forever be distorted for you.

Q: Do you feel that your background as an Adventist, or your grounding in a strongly moral Christian church, makes any kind of a difference in the way you approach your job?

A: When times get hard, I hang on to my faith. It is not always easy, but I know that God is in the mix somehow. I don’t always understand how, or the outcomes, but I am learning and trying to grow. I keep reminding myself that the lessons learned are not always about the victim, or me or even the defendant.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your family background in the Adventist church?

A: I was born in Accra, Ghana, West Africa to missionary parents. I have also lived in England, Cyprus and Lebanon. I went to high school in Lebanon (the Beirut Overseas School) and started college there (Middle East College). I am a fourth generation Adventist on my Dad’s side. Now I am active in my local church. I attend Sligo in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Q: Do you find the Adventist church relevant in your work and your everyday life?

A: I never forget that everything I do is somehow related to the bigger picture – the great controversy of good vs evil, which is the same for all of us who claim Christianity. “No man is an island”.

Q: What do you do when you are not working?

A: “Not working”, h’mmm, I have heard of this concept before.

I love to travel. I love to do nothing. I love spending time with my husband.

Renee Battle-Brooks is chief of the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Unit at the Prince George’s County (Maryland) State’s Attorney’s Office.

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